Knowing when to step up is key to good leadership. But there’s another skill that’s at least as important — and much more difficult to master.
The best leaders, explains StumbleUpon CEO Mark Bartels, don’t just know when to step up — they also know when to step back.
“What I try to do is differentiate between being in control and being in command,” Bartels says. “I still make this mistake sometimes — I think they mean the same thing. They don’t.”
Being in command, he explains, “means you’re comfortable giving up control to people you trust.” That’s why he considers hiring the most important part of his job: it’s essential to find those people who can go off and make day-to-day decisions without asking his permission.
But, as Bartels acknowledges, giving up control is easier said than done. Over the course of his career, he’s identified a handful of management techniques that help him to feel good about loosening the reigns without letting go.
1. Communicate. A lot.
“Every Monday morning, we have an executive meeting,” he explains. “The meeting is not a status update meeting,” he stresses. Status updates are sent around before the meeting even starts, freeing up valuable facetime to make decisions as a group. “By doing that on a weekly basis, we’re all aware of exactly what’s going on,” Bartels says.
2. Be available.
“If you’ve got a question, swing over to someone’s desk, and ask a question,” he advises. “Don’t send an email.” Yes, it’s occasionally disruptive, he admits, but “it’s amazing how much you learn by osmosis.”
On the flipside, when you do get emails, respond to them quickly. “If someone has a question, whether it’s a compensation question or an organizational question, don’t park it — respond. Even if the answer is, ‘I’m not going to tell you.'” People appreciate a quick response, he says, and an prompt reply — even if it’s negative — “stops things from just sitting there and growing.”
3. Create transparency.
Bartels feels the company’s Google-inspired anonymous Q&A has been essential for keeping the company on course without micromanaging. Once a week at lunch, employees can ask anything they want. That can mean questions, but it can also mean comments, anxieties, or kudos. “It can be a little uncomfortable,” he says, “but it gets it out there. I’d rather have it out there and deal with it head on than have it simmer beneath the surface, which is more unhealthy.”
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